Portland Police Chief Danielle Outlaw sided with a citizen oversight board today, agreeing that a Portland Police Bureau (PPB) sergeant should be disciplined for threatening to arrest an activist who was legally filming cops during a protest in November 2016.
This is Outlaw's first decision on a case where the Citizen Review Committee (CRC) challenged the PPB's findings since taking office in October. In general, after the CRC challenges the bureau’s clearance of an officer, the chief has the next call. The chief can side with CRC and punish the cop, or head to a future CRC meeting to try to convince the board to see it her way. If the CRC and chief still disagree, the case is settled by the Portland City Council—a rare occurrence. Outlaw's decision today means this case is done—there will be no more public meetings on this and the sergeant will receive some sort of punishment.
In a December meeting that we wrote about, the CRC voted unanimously to challenge the bureau's finding that that the Sergeant Erin Smith didn't violate PPB policy when he said that activist Ben Kerensa "could be arrested" for filming him. Filming police in public, which Kerensa had been doing, is a right under federal and state law. Smith later told investigators he purposely lied to Kerensa "about whether he was going to be arrested or not" to try to get him to stop filming but Traffic Division Captain Mike Crebs, the sergeant's boss, cleared his underling, telling the board that it wasn't really a threat and that police lying to people is acceptable in many situations. Police, earlier in the protest, had given Kerensa a ticket, alleging he entered a crosswalk too late (that was dismissed in court).
The CRC members and people in the audience wholeheartedly disagreed with Crebs and the PPB's findings, saying it was an improper threat that violated bureau policy.
"This is like an old-school mafia tactic," CRC member Daniel Schwartz said at the December meeting, blasting Crebs' reasoning that a cop telling a an activist he "could be arrested" for doing what he's doing wasn't really a threat.
CRC chair Kristin Malone also passionately disagreed with Crebs: "If you do it in a situation where somebody knows their rights, that’s extremely terrible, but let’s say you do it in a situation with somebody who doesn’t know their rights. Maybe it’s not the First Amendment, maybe it’s Fourth Amendment. Maybe it’s an ‘I can come into your apartment’—it’s not something we want to be doing.”
ACLU of Oregon Legal Director Mat dos Santos spoke up at the meeting: "That the sergeant also admits that he’s employing his tactic to make [Kerensa] stop filming should further bolster the finding of an improper threat. If the officers are allowed to simply wordsmith their threats to avoid internal accountability, then officers will be permitted to suppress First Amendment rights with impunity.”
Kerensa filed two complaints from the day he and others were protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline near the Phillips 66 terminal in Northwest Portland. The first, based on an earlier encounter, was that it was improper for a cop to tell him that he couldn’t film police activity—the bureau agreed with that complaint. Outlaw's decision today means both of his complaints were ultimately upheld.
Read the Mercury's December 13 story: "A Cop Lied to Get a Portland Activist to Stop Filming. The Police Bureau Says That’s Completely Fine"